Defensive end Kenard Lang tested his sprained ankle on the practice field yesterday and pronounced himself fit to play in the Washington Redskins' regular season opener Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys at Redskins Stadium.
Tight end Stephen Alexander also participated in yesterday's two-hour practice at Redskin Park, and said he thinks he's close to being fully recovered from the sprained knee ligament that kept him out of the Redskins' final two preseason games. Barring further injuries this week, the Redskins will be able to put their complete projected starting lineup on the field Sunday.
Not only did they make it through the preseason with a 3-1 record, but they also managed to avoid a major injury to a starter. Their only significant injury thus far is the broken ankle that will keep backup fullback Larry Bowie on the shelf for at least the first half of the season.
"The big thing is, we're healthy," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said yesterday. "We came out of the preseason with no serious injuries, and we're excited to get going."
A year ago, the Redskins' opener set the tone for the season. They suffered a bitterly disappointing defeat on the road to the New York Giants, and followed that with six more losses en route to a 6-10 season. Although they enter this season with momentum and confidence, the Redskins know that a loss to the Cowboys Sunday could change the outlook considerably.
"The first game always sets the tone for the whole season," Lang said. "This game is the most important game."
Lang sat out Friday's last-second loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He didn't participate in Saturday's light practice, but joined his teammates for yesterday's workout in a light rain on the new artificial turf practice field at Redskin Park.
"I felt fine," he said. "I moved well. There are no ifs, ands or buts about Sunday. I'm playing."
Alexander, who did practice Saturday, was back at it yesterday, although he acknowledged he held back a bit because of slippery field conditions.
"I'm pretty close to 100 percent," Alexander said. "I felt pretty good [yesterday]. I wasn't trying to do anything crazy on the wet turf. I think I could have played last week. I'm glad it's feeling this good now."
The second-year pro figures to be a major part of the offense this season. The team enters the season without a proven big-play running back or wide receiver, and with an offensive line that must prove it can provide sufficient protection for new quarterback Brad Johnson. But the Redskins do have the weapons for a superb short passing game, with Alexander and running backs Brian Mitchell and Larry Centers. Alexander also demonstrated last season that, when he's healthy, he has the speed to be a dangerous down-field receiver.
Alexander had only two preseason games to get comfortable with Johnson, but said yesterday he believes they've had plenty of time to get to know one another.
"We had time in the offseason," said Alexander, who had 37 receptions for 383 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie. "We had minicamp and training camp. We've had plenty of time to get on the same page. We're starting to think alike. He knows where I'm going to be, and I know when and where he's going to deliver the ball. I think we're fine."
Dallas went undefeated against NFC East competition last season on its way to the division title. Redskins Coach Norv Turner said yesterday he regards Dallas as the favorite in the NFC East entering this season. But the Redskins are getting the Cowboys at the right time. Washington is healthy, while Dallas could be missing three key defensive starters -- tackle Leon Lett and cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith.
"There's no better way to start the season than playing the Cowboys at home," Mitchell said. "If we win that game, it would do a lot for us. We have the team to win that game."
Cowboys officials recently have been talking about the possibility of Sanders, sidelined by a toe injury from last season, returning to play Sunday. That seems unlikely, but Turner said yesterday he's preparing for the possibility of Sanders playing.
"He changes football games," Turner said. "I really don't have a read for if he's going to play or not."
The Redskins don't need to look back any further than last season to realize the importance of opening games. The Redskins also entered the 1998 season with high hopes, having acquired Stubblefield and fellow tackle Dan Wilkinson to anchor their defense. They played well in the first half against the Giants. But quarterback Gus Frerotte threw a pair of third-quarter interceptions that led to New York touchdowns and the Redskins lost, 31-24.
The team fell into disarray that afternoon at Giants Stadium. Linebacker Marvcus Patton screamed at Frerotte on the bench. Turner handed the quarterback job to former third-stringer Trent Green. And the Redskins didn't win a game until November.
They have every reason to believe that things will be different this time around. New owner Daniel M. Snyder has brought a more demanding attitude to the franchise. The offseason brought newcomers such as Johnson, Centers, defensive end Marco Coleman, cornerback Champ Bailey and tackle Jon Jansen, and virtually every sign has been promising since the opening of training camp in July. The starting defense yielded only six points in seven quarters of play during the exhibition season.
"We set the tone during the offseason," Stubblefield said. "We're not thinking about last season. We've erased that."